The New York Times by NICHOLAS CONFESSORE - January 5, 2010
ALBANY, NY — Gov. David A. Paterson on Wednesday will unveil a set of sweeping proposals to rein in political corruption in state government, including vastly expanded ethics oversight, term limits for all state officeholders and a system of public campaign financing modeled on New York City’s, administration officials said on Monday. Under the proposed legislation, which Mr. Paterson will make a centerpiece of his State of the State address on Wednesday, New York would for the first time provide matching funds to candidates for state office, limit lobbyists to contributions no larger than $250 and ban corporate contributions entirely. The maximum contribution for any candidate for state office, including the governor, would fall to $1,000 from $55,900, and the limits would apply to candidates who opt out of public financing. Mr. Paterson is also proposing to sharply limit contributions to each party’s so-called housekeeping accounts, where special interests may now deposit five- and six-figure checks with few restrictions, and ban bundling — the practice by which lobbyists and others collect contributions on behalf of a candidate. While bills to create public financing have passed the Assembly many times, the expanded ethics oversight and term limits are expected to be a difficult sell in both houses of the Legislature, which has been slow to consider tougher ethics laws. And the governor’s relationship with lawmakers has deteriorated as he publicly blamed them for failing to take action on the state budget shortfall.
The legislation would effectively dismantle Albany’s existing campaign finance system, in which corporations and labor unions deposit millions of dollars into central housekeeping accounts controlled by party leaders, who then use that money to finance individual candidates, making rank-and-file lawmakers dependent on the leaders. Perhaps most controversially, Mr. Paterson will propose limiting statewide officials — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller — to two four-year terms each, while members of the Legislature would be permitted six two-year terms. Such a change would require an amendment to the State Constitution. Mr. Paterson is also including in his package a proposal he made last year to centralize ethics enforcement in Albany with a single independent commission charged with enforcing the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws. The new commission would also have the legal authority to refer criminal and civil cases to the attorney general, who, under current law, has limited jurisdiction over political corruption cases. Taken together, the proposals amount to the most ambitious ever suggested by a sitting governor in New York, where ethics enforcement has historically been weak and limits on campaign cash are among the least stringent in the nation. “It’s everything,” said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government watchdog organization. “It’s the kitchen sink and the stopper.”
Mr. Paterson first suggested a revamped ethics commission last May, but the idea failed to generate support from legislators, who, under current law, are policed by an oversight board appointed by Assembly and Senate leaders. But that was before the failed State Senate coup in June, the defeat of several high-profile elected officials in November and the conviction in December of Joseph L. Bruno, the former Senate majority leader, for corruption. Mr. Paterson and his aides say that with the public’s opinion of the Legislature at a historic low, and anti-incumbent sentiment running high, lawmakers will agree to support at least some portions of the governor’s proposal, if only out of self-preservation. “There needs to be change,” said one administration official involved in devising the proposal, who insisted on anonymity because the full package has not been finalized. “Big money rules Albany now. Our campaign finance laws are a joke. And I think the public wants this.” But Mr. Paterson is pushing for the overhaul at a time when his efforts to guide New York through its worst fiscal crisis in generations have been thwarted by a powerful and well-financed alliance of state lawmakers, public employee unions and health care interests.
The very breadth of Mr. Paterson’s proposal suggests how depleted his political capital is: With difficulty raising money for his own election campaign and many lawmakers balking at his budget proposals, the governor has little to lose by calling for big changes. As currently drafted, Mr. Paterson’s package does not address one major problem that was highlighted during Mr. Bruno’s trial: the lack of disclosure from lawmakers, who technically work part time, about their outside business arrangements. (Mr. Bruno was convicted of deceiving the public about payments he received from a businessman who was seeking contracts and other aid from the state.) Administration officials said that the final proposal would touch on the issue, but they declined to provide further details on Monday. While praising the breadth of Mr. Paterson’s proposals, Mr. Horner said that the true test for the governor was what he could actually get passed. Some elements of Mr. Paterson’s plan may earn a warmer welcome in the Legislature. There is already significant support among Democratic lawmakers for public financing of campaigns. Mr. Paterson previously opposed such legislation on the grounds that New York could not afford it — advocates put the cost at about $30 million a year — during a fiscal crisis. To address that concern, the governor would phase in public financing in 2012.